The history of this region, with its winding rivers and rolling prairies, dates back to long before the area was settled by farmers and trappers. The early inhabitants of Cerro Gordo County were the Winnebago and Sioux tribes. The tribes relied upon the lush forests and bountiful lakes for many years before Joseph Hewitt and James Dickirson arrived in 1851.
Hewitt and Dickirson settled on the shores of Clear Lake, a spring-fed body of water formed by glaciers that is now seven miles long and 2.5 miles wide. At an elevation of 1,247 feet, the lake is actually higher than many of the buildings in nearby Mason City. The Clear Lake region is believed to have been visited in 1832 by Nathan Boone (son of famed explorer Daniel Boone) although it was not officially settled until 1856.
Hewitt and Dickirson’s settlement soon became a Midwestern oasis. Hewitt traded with the Indians, and Dickirson farmed the rich soil. The town of Shibboleth was settled in 1853 at the convergence of the Winnebago River and Willow Creek by Hewitt, John Long, and George Brentner. The town changed names several times – to Masonic Grove, to Masonville and eventually to Mason City – all reflections of the community’s early reliance upon the brick and tile industry.
A sawmill set up on the west side of the Winnebago River became the new city’s first commercial business. Settlers soon flocked to the region for its abundant water supply and additional resources. Nearby, the City of Clear Lake was settled in 1856; in 1859 the railroad brought more economic success to the area. Soon after, Mason City was incorporated.
Large deposits of limestone and clay opened the doors for a thriving mining and cement industry, and by 1911 two large cement companies were operating in Mason City. The cement industry continues to be an important part of the community, where brick and tile were also once made. In 1912, the area was one of the largest producers of brick and tile in the world, but the industry has since disappeared. Mason City has now evolved to become a service, retail, and distribution center.
The Mason City Municipal Airport was founded in 1927 by the Mason City Chamber of Commerce and the Clausen-Worden Post of the American Legion, hence its airport code MCW. Charles Lindbergh attended the Mason City Airport dedication shortly after his historic transatlantic flight. Sadly, more than 30 years later, the airport became known for another historic – and tragic – event. On Feb. 3, 1959, singer and musician Buddy Holly left a performance at the Surf Ballroom’s Winter Dance Party in Clear Lake and boarded a private plane with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. While departing the Mason City airport in icy weather, the plane crashed in a field near Clear Lake. Today, a memorial in that cornfield is a tribute to these rock ‘n’ roll legends and “The Day the Music Died.”
The boyhood home of composer Meredith Willson, who is best known for his Broadway musicals “The Music Man” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” can be found in Mason City. Willson also wrote the familiar Christmas tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” “The Music Man” debuted on Broadway on Dec. 19, 1957, and ran for 1,376 performances. Mason City served as the inspiration for the play’s fictional hometown of River City, which was also the setting in the big-screen Hollywood adaptation starring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston. The musical won six Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, and has since been revived on Broadway and in the movies – a Walt Disney version starred Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth. The Beatles even performed a cover version of “Till There Was You.”
Each year, locals recall another famous event. On March 13, 1934, notorious bank robber John Dillinger and his accomplice, John Hamilton, each sustained gunshot wounds while attempting to rob the First National Bank in Mason City. They only netted $52,000 from the robbery, far less than the $240,000 they expected. Dillinger had become somewhat of a Robin Hood figure to the public and had planned to use his share to flee the country.